Monday, April 30, 2007

Speaking of Spider-Man

I recently regained the electronic rights to my book Comic Book Character, so now I can put portions of it online here. I thought, with the third film in the Spider-Man franchise coming this week to a theater near you, it might be fun to take a look at what about Peter Parker captured my imagination at the time. The following is excerpted from pages 23-24 of the book, under the heading "The Fantasy of Strength":

What is it about superheroes that makes them endure the tedium of normal life? And why do we, as readers, allow it? If we had the powers of our heroes, would we stand for the petty meanness of the average people who bully us? If we knew our friends had such powers, would we allow them to do nothing for us or for themselves?

There’s an unspoken rule among superheroes that powers are to be used only in critical situations. We’re not often told why, but the origin of one superhero gives us a look at what could happen without such self-restraint.

Spider-Man wasn’t always Spider-Man. For most of his childhood he was mild-mannered Peter Parker, an orphaned genius being raised by his elderly aunt and uncle. He was a bookish, withdrawn kid, regularly used and abused by his classmates. . . .

Then one day on a field trip to a laboratory, Peter was bitten by a spider exposed to radiation. Over time Peter discovered that he had appropriated the physical characteristics of a spider—the ability to stick to walls and ceilings; greatly enhanced strength, speed and agility; and (we’re told much later in the 2002 film) the capacity to spin his own webbing. He had always been smarter than anyone in his class; now he was stronger, faster, more talented and quickly more confident as well.

So Peter did what you might expect the butt of everyone’s jokes to do: he started showing off. He picked fights with schoolmates and got quick revenge on the people who had abused him for so long, and he started making lots of money by exploiting his newfound talents as an unbeatable mystery wrestler. He alienated everyone he encountered—his employer, his classmates, eventually even the press—with his rash, defiant attitude. And when he could have stopped a burglary without even exerting himself, he didn’t bother. All the average, immature high-school students got their comeuppance from Peter, but no bad guys met justice through Spider-Man.

Peter learned a painful lesson though. His uncle, who had raised him since his parents’ death, lost his life at the hands of the very burglar Peter had let escape. Peter quickly realized that by his inaction he was complicit in his uncle’s death. And by the end of his first adventure, as he meditated on his uncle’s advice—"With great power comes great responsibility"— he grew up a bit and discovered the proper channel for his abilities.

Peter Parker added an adolescent humanness to superheroes that until his debut in the comic Amazing Fantasy had played a minor role, and he resonated with his readers. We learned that to fantasize about having special powers was all well and good, but there was a corresponding ethic to having such powers, and our fantasies would not play out as we might like if we intended to remain the hero of our own stories. We can hope that someday we will be stronger than we are, better equipped to handle the hardships we inevitably face, but we must also hope that we will use that strength with wisdom and humility.

For Peter, that humility meant returning day after day to school and eventually to work, enduring humiliation as well as he could, and seeking the appropriate balance of power and responsibility that his uncle had pointed him toward. He used his powers only against those whose passions could not be controlled by the ordinary safeguards of law, common decency and moral impulse. He alternately used and hid his powers so that he and the people around him could live as normal and happy a life as possible. Such was his gift, and such was the greatest use of his strength.

Of course, this passage is looking at the origin of Spider-Man, and he's grown up quite a bit since then. The adult Peter Parker we'll meet in 3 faces problems progressively more complex and more grave. This third movie should once again do what the first two have already done: demanded more aesthetically, psychologically, relationally and even morally from the genre. Let me know what you think of the previews you've seen; as for me and my house, we will buy I-Max tickets in advance.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

As Presbyterian as I Wanna Be

Today I got two copies of Presbyterians Today in the mail. Normally I get one, because I'm a subscriber, which is already a pretty incontrovertible mark of my Presbyterianism. But today I got two because this issue includes an article I wrote a year ago. They paid me for it a year ago too, and I was starting to think that the editorial board was sending me a message: "How much do we have to pay you to leave us alone?" But magazines have themes; the content inside must cohere. This month my article "Doesn't Jesus Care?" came close enough to the theme to secure its place. If you read the article and the byline and decided to come visit, welcome! I'm glad you're here. If you didn't even know there was such a thing as Presbyterians Today, let me assure you that there is. Read it and reap.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Signing with the Enemy

I have good news: Last night I received a contract for my next book, tentatively titled Deliver Us from Me-Ville. I'm pretty excited about it; I've had some of these ideas biding their time in my brain for years, so now I get a chance to free up some mental space. I've started writing but currently I'm mostly gathering material.

Here's the touchy part: I signed with a publisher other than the publisher of my first book. Not only that, I sent it to this different publisher before I showed it to the publisher of my first book. Not only that, I'm employed by the publisher of my first book. In a sense, I suppose, I've signed with the enemy.

Now let's be honest: enemy is a bit, shall we say, grandiose a term for the relationship of Cook (my new publisher) and InterVarsity Press (my [hopefully still] employer). Both are known in the industry as Christian publishers, which means that even if they were enemies, they'd be commanded by their Lord to love each other, which by default sort of makes them friends. Still, it's a little awkward for me, and potentially awkward for all my friends at both publishers.

Nevertheless, I feel good about the decision. I actually worked for Cook for about six days in the 1990s, after they bought the company I was working for but before they moved said company across the country. They gave me as nice a severance as an entry-level goofball with no marketable skills could hope to get, so I was fine with it. But if any healing needed to begin, with the offer of this book contract it's certainly begun.

I met the book publisher at Cook while he was an agent, and I always liked the book ideas he sent me and enjoyed him immensely the one time we met. My initial plan was to ask him to represent me, but then he stopped agenting and started publishing, so I had to regroup, to rethink.

In the interim I met the woman who would ultimately become my editor and found her delightful. At the same time I caught up with a former intern of mine who now worked for Cook; she was delightful too. That's three for three delightful people at one company: pretty good odds. So I swallowed my fear and sent my friend the former agent my proposal, and he sent it on to my new friend the delightful editor, who sent me several delightful e-mails that culminated in "Sure, we'll publish it." Delightful!

Meanwhile, I was thinking, Hey, wait a minute. Don't I work for a publisher? Didn't they publish my first book and give me my first blog? Don't they deposit money directly into my bank account every month? Aren't they delightful too?

And they are, don't get me wrong. Some of my most meaningful conversations and significant friendships over the past ten years have been with my coworkers. And they did great work on my first book and were willing to take a risk on an unknown author in the first place anyway. So yes, they're delightful.

Meanwhile, all the authors I have been inviting to write books for my employers are saying things like "Say, I notice you published a book with InterVarsity Press. Do you have plans to write any more books?"

"Yes, actually. Yes I do."

"So that must be delightful, getting to publish another book with your employer, where so many of your significant friendships and conversations have been forged over lo these many years."

"Well, actually, my next book isn't going to be with InterVarsity Press. It's going to be with Cook."

"What?!? Why?!? Do you hate your employer?!? Are they not delightful?!? Should I be talking with Cook instead of with you?!?"

And here's where my rationale sounds thin but, to my ears, makes perfect sense:

"It's not IVP; it's me."

Check back for part two to get my rationale.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Meme of the Day

Inspired by the effusive posting of Christianne and my own literary hubris, here's a meme for you to chew on and spit into the open mouths of the hungry little chickies in your midst. Name and make the case for five books you frequently foist on your friends. Here's mine:

1. Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton. If I could have, I would have, but I'm so glad he did. So playful, so insightful.

2. Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Worthy of an endless conversation, so all the more reason to recruit more conversation partners.

3. Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose by Brian Mahan. Nature's most nearly perfect book; Brian approaches Chesterton in his apt mixing of wit and self-effacement with profound insight. It hasn't had nearly the effect on the people I've loaned it to, however, that it's had on me. Fair warning.

4. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Jesuits in space. How can you lose?

5. Daredevil: Born Again by Frank Miller. Yeah, it's a comic book. Deal with it. Brilliant story telling, great revision of an aging character, remarkable secular appropriation of Christian imagery and language.

There are others, of course, but these five came to mind most quickly. How about you? Post a comment here or an entry on your blog--I tag everybody.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Idolatry of the Cell

I'm feeling a little conflicted about my cell phone. It's a camera-phone, which is great. It allows me to store photographic memories of my travels, which is great. It allows me to set a screen poster of my own creation, which is great. So far, so great.

I visited Warehouse 2:42 while I was in Charlotte this past winter, in the hopes of conscripting two of their members to write books for me and my employer. (One down, one to go. :) While I was there I used my cell phone to take a picture of the cross outside their church. So far, so great. Then comes Holy Week, so I set the photograph to be my screen poster. Pretty clever--pretty pious, no? But here's where my inner conflict enters the picture.

In the center of the crossbeam on my screen poster, where Jesus' head might be found on a crucifix, sits the term Cingular. I tried to change the layout of the script, but Cingular stays locked in place.

Now, I have nothing against Cingular. I've gotten good service and nigh-on-miraculously few dropped calls. But I can't seem to shake the passing thought that this photograph set as this phone's screen poster conveys the message that Cingular died for my sins. That seems idolatrous.

But it gets worse: thinking about the notion of a cross branded by Cingular like some Nascar helmet makes me chuckle. That seems sacrilegious.

But perhaps it's time for one more confession: I don't like talking on the phone. And I hate the pressure of being constantly available by phone. So it's actually a good discipline for me to be reminded just before I use a phone that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. That seems like a good safeguard against the sin crouching at my door, so to speak.

So on the one hand, I want to leave the cross where it is. On the other hand, I want to drop it like it's hot. What to do, what to do . . .

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Unsafe at Any Speed

Well, it happened again. For the third time in seven months I've been cited for a moving violation. You may recall from my earlier post that (a) none of my tickets has been for speeding or driving under the influence or shooting at other drivers, and (b) I disputed and defeated the charge the most recent charge. Ever since then I've been hypervigilant as I drive, dropping well beneath the speed limit and virtually shifting into park at every stop sign or stop light. But the man keeps trying to bring me down. I found out this week that my passenger-side headlight is out; that little insight from a Village of Roselle police officer is costing me thirty-five bucks.

The officer had one hand on his holster and one hand on the extra-bright flashlight as he approached my car. I told him good evening and handed him my license and insurance card; he asked me if there was anything he should know about my license. I still don't know what he meant by that (feel free to speculate), because based on my reply and his reaction he wasn't asking if I'm still at the same address or if I've recently gained some weight. My best guess is that, in the minds of the village leadership in Roselle, there's some terrorist message encoded when someone willfully acts to, in the words of the Wallflowers, "drive it home with one headlight."

I really am getting tired of getting pulled over, and as I mentioned in my earlier post, my attempt to defend my driving honor and voice my prophetic diatribe against traffic justice in the United States was interrupted by a forgetful bureaucracy, so once again this time I sat in my car waiting for my ticket and grumbling internally about the unfairness of my situation. I made myself a bet that a third to a half of all the cars that passed by as the Roselle officer wrote my ticket would have at least one headlight out of service, then I started counting. To my shock, only one driver along this busy thoroughfare was a scofflaw like me; apparently Roselle's zero-tolerance policy has effectively rooted out pediddle-driving banditry from its village limits.

After a while, the officer returned to me my license, proof of insurance and ticket. He told me that the ticket won't go on my driving record--that it's a village ordinance I've violated, not a rule of the road. This was free money for Roselle; I know that much for certain, as much because I have such a sophsticated sense of logic and such open eyes about the injustice of the traffic-law system as because of the address to which I was to send my ticket:

Village of Roselle
Finance Department

Friday, April 20, 2007

Wholle Llotta Llamas

Is there any word quite so endearing as llama? It evokes such warm feelings for me; when I was a kid my uncle the Father sent us from Bolivia a llama-fur wall hanging, which held a place of honor in my bedroom for years. It was soft and fuzzy, warm and cute, the closest thing to a pet I had--if you don't count Cinnamon the impish hamster and the fish-with-the-short-lifespan. So now, llamas--which to my knowledge are not indigenous to the North American midwest, are popping up all over the place. Web has one on his site right now; and mad props to the queen of llama llovers, Llama Momma. And of course how can I keep typing llama without thinking of Jenn with two nns? It's true: llamas bring people together.

To Scribble or to Gnosh?

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete. (2 John 12)

I found myself caught off guard by this little comment, tacked on to the end of both 2 John and 3 John. I originally posted this at Accountable Devotions, but I keep thinking about it, so I wanted to expand the pool of inquiry. What are the limitations of something written (even something written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) in personal relationship? How do we know when it's time to set aside the paper and ink, and instead go face to face? What are the relative merits and weaknesses of written versus verbal conversation?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Quote of the Day

From G. K. Chesterton's essay on "William Blake":

I have often been haunted with a fancy that the creeds of men might be
paralleled and represented in their beverages. Wine might stand for genuine
Catholicism, and ale for genuine Protestantism; for these at least are real
religions with comfort and strength in them. Clean cold Agnosticism would be
clean cold water -- an excellent thing if you can get it. Most modern ethical
and idealistic movements might be well represented by soda-water -- which is a
fuss about nothing.

So, are you a mocker or a brawler? Or perhaps you're much a Mountain Dew about nothing. (Tee hee.) I'll also welcome nominations for alternate beverages for these and/or other worldviews.

Link of the Day

My friend Craver VII, impish fellow that he is, recently received the Thinking Blogger Award from Jenn of the multitudinous n's--only to turn around and grant himself the "Stinking Blogger Award." Pretty funny. You can spend a lifetime following the trail of "Thinking Bloggers" that links away from Craver, so for God's sake, show some self-discipline. But have fun while you're doing it.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Red Rover, Red Rover

I've been memed by two people, Jenn (with one J) and Pete (with two ees). Jenn wants to know what tunes people are digging lately; Pete wants to see your office space. So here, without further ado, are my responses.

1. Office.
Here's a picture of our home office. Note the superhero stuff on the wall, painted and otherwise crafted by friends along the way. Also note the open container of dark-chocolate-covered espresso beans and the unopened box of Turbo Tax. Believe it or not, I cleaned up a bit before taking this picture.

2. Music.
Most of the new music I've been digging lately isn't all that new. I bought the new Switchfoot (Oh! Gravity!) and actually like it more than I expected; it's pretty rockin, and I'm apparently in a pretty rockin mood. Best tunes are "Amateur Lovers" and "4:12."

Another recent purchase was John Mayer's Grammy-winning Continuum. I'm willing to forgive his fascination with Jessica Simpson because he's so good at writing songs and playing guitar. He takes a great turn on Jimi Hendrix's "Bold as Love" and crafts a wonderfully melancholy consolation song with "The Heart of Life." I wrote at Strangely Dim about the cultural significance of his song "Waiting on the World to Change"; all told, it's easy to see why this record has gotten such high praise.

I've become a big fan of Arcade Fire, though thus far I've only borrowed, never bought. They have unbelievable texture to their music, though they're definitely an acquired taste--as are the Decemberists, who made my last list of good music with their Picaresque album. Their single "Valencia" is OK, but "Crane Wife" is a very moving song.

Finally for now, I've been taking every chance I can to listen to Madeleine Peyroux, who revisions other people's songs like nobody's business. The one on the new album, Half the Perfect World, that really gets me is "Everybody's Talkin'." Listening to her is like knowing then what we know now--a savvy innocence, wounded but healing.

3. Tag!
OK. Red rover, red rover, send Carolyn, Web and Rebecca's current favorite songs and photos of their offices right over.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


In case you're in the Chicago area and are looking for something to do around Eastertime, consider coming to one of the performances of Living Waters, my church's Easter play. We're a little neighborhood church in Lombard, on Madison Road just east of Westmore/Meyers (becomes Fairview in Downers Grove). See a map here.

Show Times
April 5 (tonight) at 7:30
April 6 (Friday) at 3:00 or 7:30
April 13 (next Friday) at 7:30
April 14 (next Saturday) at 7:30

Childcare is available. No tickets needed. Watch the trailer (featuring my wife!) here.

Hope you can join us! I sing a solo--so low you can't hear me.
Paul Grant (author of Blessed Are the Uncool) sent me this nice little pick-me-up yesterday.

guess what showed up when I typed "discipline of celebration" in a google
search? An InterVarsity (StudentSoul) article called "Loud Times".

I wrote that article years ago in preparation for a writers workshop staffed by Jeff Yourison, editor at Student Soul. I tried to get it published as a booklet, to no avail, but Jeff very kindly ran it, and I've hung on to the concept ever since.

Check out Student Soul; as the French say, it's tout sweet.

Yes, yes, I know the French mean something different . . .

Monday, April 02, 2007

Spam of the Earth

Today's spam of the day is technically not spam; I'm proud to say that it comes from Sojourners, an organization dedicated to a biblical vision for social justice and responsibility. That being said, this blanket e-mail had a subject line too tasty to resist:

Subject: Kick off Earth Day

Earth Day isn't till April 22, so that can't be what this e-mail was about. No, I'm pretty sure it's promoting a day for kicking people, places and things off Earth. Sounds fun: I'm taking nominations here at Loud Time. I'll start:

I vote that we kick the following off Earth:

1. Hummers
2. Private property leaflets
3. Spam

How about you? What would you like to see kicked off earth?

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...